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Rabbi Sid Schwarz

Rabbi Schwarz's Recipe for Attracting Next Generation Jews: Serious Jewish Learning, Social Activism, Kehilla and Kedusha- Fulfilling Jewish Soul (Jewish environmentalism, Food Justice)

by Rhonda Spivak, March 15, 2015




In a thought provoking sweeping lecture which gave a broad overview of trends in the Jewish world, Rabbi Sid Schwarz opened the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg's Limmud conference by noting that "The Federation system [in North America] is in serious decline." He noted that in 1985 there were 900,000 donors to the Federation, but in 2010 there were only 450,000, "a 50% drop in 25 years."


Similarly, according to the data referred to by Rabbi Schwarz only 7% of members of Reform and Conservative synagogues are age 35 or under. Additionally, memberships in Jewish organizations and in the "JCC networks" are also facing "steep decline."


Rabbi Schwarz, named "one of America's top 50 most influential rabbis" by Time Magazine, noted that the Federation system has kept its campaign numbers high by getting wealthy donors  "to double their gift from $100,000 to $200,000", but when you look at the donor base,  it has shrunken significantly. Rabbi Schwarz, who has a doctorate in Jewish  history noted that in biblical times Jews got counted by  "giving a half Shekel" but when one looks at the Federation system, the reality is that fewer and fewer Jews are giving that half shekel. 


Rabbi Schwarz, who said that his biggest charitable donation yearly is to the Jewish Federation, outlined how For Next Generation Jews, unlike previous generations of Jews, the issue isn't "how will we make it in America." Jews have already done well socio-economically, and the question for Next Generation Jews, according to Schwarz is whether Judaism can offer any added value to their lives. According to Rabbi Schwarz, who is the director of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program, a yearlong fellowship on Judaism and human rights for young professionals, Next Generation Jews are asking "why do we need it" since "we can be successful without it."


Rabbi Schwarz, a 61 year old who is the son of Holocaust survivors, said that Next Generation Jews are interested in "living out the covenant" in ways that are different than his generation. He made it clear that if organizations such as the Jewish Federation and synagogue do not begin to put on programming that targets the interests of Next Generation Jews, then they will remain in serious decline. Next Gen Jews are "passionate" about some things and are "reinventing Jewish life" in ways that are different than previous generations


Rabbi Schwarz, who is a senior fellow at Clal (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), gave a four pronged "recipe" for engaging Next Generation Jews, outlining four areas which in which he believes Next Generation Jews are keenly interested: 


He is also the director of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program, a yearlong fellowship on Judaism and human rights for young professionals with hubs in New York, London and Jerusalem.  He founded and led PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values for 21 years.


SERIOUS JEWISH LEARNING. According to Rabbi Schwarz, "Next Generation Jews are more serious about Jewish learning than my generation ever was." He noted that in his generation, "non-orthodox Jews didn't learn." He said that the Limmud Festival of Jewish Learning, which is now occurring in 80 cities, is one example of this trend. According to Rabbi Schwartz, many Jews who come to Limmud are not necessarily Jews 'who give to the Jewish Federation, or belong to synagogues or belong to Jewish organizations, but they "are interested in serious Jewish learning" (Editor's note: I have sent in a query to the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg in this regard since I would venture to say that the vast majority of attendees of Limmud in our city are in fact donors to the Jewish Federation). Rabbi Schwartz noted that Chabad has an appeal to Next Generation Jews because it is "giving and providing authentic serious Jewish learning", something which young people want, "even though they don’t want that observant lifestyle necessarily." His overall point was that you can't put out "Jewish lite” but instead must offer serious Jewish Learning


PROVIDING TZEDEK  THROUGH SOCIAL ACTIVISM - According to Rabbi Schwartz, this is the sector that has grown the most regarding Next Generation Jews.  Rabbi Schwarz is of the view that is necessary to "Use the wisdom and values of Jewish Tradition' in order to "to inspire greater social activism and community service.” Jewish values provide a lens through which to harness social activism. As Schwartz said, "We [Jews] care about the world" since if the world isn't safe for humanity "we are the canary in the coal mine, we’ll be the first victims when the world turns dark, which it is again doing."


Rabbi Schwarz referred to the American Jewish World Service [AJWS], to which more and more Next Generation Jews are attracted. It "allocates money to non-profits throughout developing world." According to Schwarz, while the Federation movement has lost half its donor base, the AJWS has grown significantly, which shows "Jews are passionate' about "re going to India and Nepal, to work with people who are dispossessed." He referred to his own daughter who spent a year in India through  AWJS.  This type of experience enables Next Generation Jews to "be fully engaged in the he world but in a Jewish way."

Rabbi Schwarz gave another example of providing Tzedek through social activism, by talking about a mission to Haiti he organized at the congregation he founded, the Adat Shalom Reconstructionist congregation in Bethseda, MD.  Rabbi Schwartz met a Pastor  who founded a church and a school in Leogane, (Less than 50% of Haitian children go to any elementary school all) His congregation  undertook a  Haiti Project with the primary mission of supporting the Pastor 's School which serves 170 children from K-6th grades. He noted, that Jews have really responded to this and "we sell the trip out every year. There's a waiting list." (To read more about the Mission to Haiti, go to


Rabbi Schwarz,  concluded, "If  Jewish community doesn’t  get into this [social activism] business, Jews will go elsewhere—they’ll find it elsewhere." for example, he said that Next Gen Jews will "go to Habitat for Humanity and others since "they want to walk the walk of prophetic Judaism."



PROVIDING "KEHILLA"-According to Rabbi Schwarz, the Jewish community and synagogues need to build "kehilla"-"community," as this is something that people are craving for.


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.